Using robotic telescopes for astronomy education is something that is at the heart of my professional interests and I have been actively working on this during my nine years at LCO. This week, my collaborator Dr Michael Fitzgerald and I published a review paper on the subject in the journal, The Astronomical Review.
We wanted to make sure that this review paper was not just a log of projects which were currently running, but offered lessons learned from excellent projects from the past and made informed suggestions for anyone running an education programme with robotic telescopes.
Below I've reproduced our advice section (Section 7 of the paper) and I hope that you will find it useful.
The paper is open access with a Creative Commons licence which allows unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Have a read, and let us know what you think!
Many projects start with a robotic telescope and then try to fit a programme around it. With any educational project it is essential to outline the goals of your project before considering what tools you need to achieve those goals. You will not only be able to refer to these goals when you are creating the educational materials, software, and other items for a successful program, it will help your program to stay focused, making it easier to achieve and support. If your initial goals are successful or even too simplistic, you can always revise them after trialling your programme. The evaluation of your programme should reference these goals and how well they were achieved by the audience.
Who is the audience?
You might think your programme will appeal to everyone, and while the essence of the programme might have broad appeal, identifying the key group or groups who will (or should) benefit most from your programme is very useful. It will guide your choice of activities and help your programme to remain focused. In doing so, try not to overclaim and say that your participants will or can do things which are beyond the scope of the programme.
Does your project match the instrumentation?
Some telescopes are too big to image the moon, the planets or bright stars. Some telescopes are too small or track too poorly to image distant galaxy clusters and faint planetary nebula. Some telescope networks are not set up to easily periodically observe a variable star or asteroid. Some telescopes are not in optimal locations and can easily be rained out hampering attempts at direct control. Some telescopes do not have science grade filters available to do research-grade photometry. Most telescopes (so far) do not have spectroscopes. All telescopes are different and matching your intended observations to the capacity of the instrumentation or user interface is very important.
Simple user interface
If you run a robotic telescope for education your user interface will be the key component to the success of your programme. Your choice of goals and understanding of who your audience is will be critical in your choice of interface. There are many off-the-shelf interface solutions but almost all of them assume a working knowledge of aspects of astronomy that professionals and amateurs take for granted (e.g. catalogue names for astronomical objects are relatively unknown to teachers, a telescope’s field of view will be a mystifying concept to students). One of your goals may be educating your audience to a sufficient level to use the interface. Be wary of requiring the audience to acquire skills and knowledge which are too specific to your programme. It may work better for your programme to use a simplistic interface which encourages a larger audience to participate.
A document is never as good as an expert
Do not assume any of your users will read documentation. Only the keenest of your audience will hunt for information if it is not immediately obvious. Do not assume that teachers who have been trained in the activities of your programme will remember the full details. If you can provide in-person mentoring to your audience, it will dramatically improve not only their understanding of the programme but also their investment in it. You might also consider running regular webcasts/webinars. These should involve a way for the audience to interact (e.g. ask questions) and be archived for your audience to watch at their convenience.
Time is precious and short
People new to robotic telescopes and astronomical data can take a long time to understand the various concepts, tools and tasks. Education users, whether in a formal classroom or an informal outreach situation, are typically very time limited. Unless your project is focused on mentoring users through long projects, it is best to remove any approach or material that unnecessarily uses up the limited time of the user.
Sustaining resources are necessary
As noted in previous publications, e.g. "A review of high school level astronomy student research projects over the last two decades" by Fitzgerald MT, Hollow R, Rebull LM, et al. , one of the major failing points of any education project is a lack of funding. Sometimes very well meaning projects come into existence on the back of a successful traditional 3-year grant, only to go through a lifecycle of necessary development and to disappear as soon as the grant funding dries up. Sufficient thought about the longevity of resources needs to be taken into account in any approach as education, nearly by definition, is something that occurs over a longer, more sustained period. The failing point in most projects is usually due to lack of monetary resources, but resources such as the voluntary time of skilled people as well as in-kind telescope time provision must also be taken into account.
Good design and continual improvement
The first version of any materials or approach used in any project will not be perfect. It will likely have errors and will not quite fit the intended audience. This is inevitable, try to use known principles of instructional design and how people learn when creating your initial attempts. Where possible, observe your activity being used or delivered to the target audience, and see how it differs from your intended implementation and why. Some differences may be very obvious while some may (or can) only appear after analysing your evaluation results. In light of this information, revisit and reform your provided materials and approach. An ethos of continual evaluation and revision will improve the quality of your project over time.